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Book Review: by Lang Reid

Fresh-Air Fiend

This week’s book was written by the famed travel writer Paul Theroux, though a “book” is probably a misnomer.  It is in fact, a collection of short stories, previously written for a disparate group of magazines, and re-jigged into this collection of travel writings 1985-2000 (Fresh-Air Fiend ISBN 978-0-241-95055-5, reprinted 2011).

Author Theroux is an American, with decided ideas on life and living, and where.  He also comes across as someone who hates American tourists, though he will have a lot of supporters there!  He is also an aging radical, and much of his early writings reflect this, though like all teenage rebels, pragmatism eventually is the winner.

He describes his transition to writing as, “I was not embraced as a traveler, I was seen as a stranger, sometimes a dangerous one.  My experience of that conflict made me a writer.”

He is happy to experience any arena of conflict, and even becomes embroiled in the conflicts in juvenile lust.  “The fact that something is forbidden or deemed wicked, has made it more pleasurable, especially for those of us who grew up in an atmosphere of repression.  Half the country breaks state laws in the bedroom.  Obviously that is part of the fun in living in places like Alabama and Georgia.”  So now, has Theroux interested you enough to travel there?

His visit(s) to China showed the rate of change in that country, and Theroux, with much foresight mentions, “… one of the numerous auto accidents I saw in an average day as a metaphor for modernized China - the so-called miracle you read about every time you open a magazine or newspaper.  Seen from a distance the country does seem wondrous, but up close it is messier and more complicated.  Like most economic miracles it is also an ecological disaster.”  Indeed, Theroux writes that there is no reason for tourists to go to the manufacturing cities of the economic zones.  “Tourists would be in the way.”

One of the items relates to his going to an uninhabited island in the Republic of Palau.  Once again, a humorous report of his looking for solitude, though remaining connected with the world at large with a host of electronic devices including sat-nav and an emergency rescue device.  He also says that Palau has 400 species of hard coral.  (I’m on the next canoe.)

A weighty read at 450 pages for B. 495.  Separate short stories, it is very easy to pick up and put down, but if you are looking for hints on where to go in Bechuanaland and the cheapest hotels, then this is not the book for you.  It is very much the personal muses of a well-traveled, but very individual character.  In many ways it reminded me of books about cars by Jeremy Clarkson (presenter of Top Gear BBC).  Humorous, slick and teaches the reader nothing about cars.  Similarly, Theroux is humorous, slick, and the book teaches you nothing about travel.  If you are a Theroux fan, you will love the book.  For me it was, as I mentioned before, easy to pick up and put down.  I chose the latter.


With an obvious tilt towards “Catch-22”, Joseph Heller’s magnificent book reviewed here a few months ago, Hitch-22, with the subtitle A Memoir (ISBN 978-1-8435-922-2, Atlantic Books, 2010) is an autobiography by Englishman Christopher Hitchens.

In many ways, Hitchens comes across as the result of the era in which he was raised.  A naval officer father, a remote figure always referred to as “The Commander”, even though he was not always that rank, and a mother who separated from the family to live with another man, and eventually was part of a double suicide.  The loss of his mother, called Yvonne by Hitchens, again showing the family gulf, obviously affected him as a young man, and psychologists would have a field day with his analysis, pointing out that his earlier sexual ambivalence was probably the result of this upbringing.

The book covers the entire lifespan from his birth in 1949 through to today where he is now living with an esophageal cancer, and with his own brand of atheism is certainly not in God’s waiting room (though Hitchens would spell “God” in lower case “god”).

His early political leanings to the left are ones that are shared by most young university intellectuals, reaching their outward protests and sit-ins with out much depth to their beliefs.  As one gets older and more mature (“wiser” would be incorrect), these leanings change, and Hitchens describes his vacillation through life, currently describing himself as no longer a ‘socialist’ but still a Marxist as well as a neo-conservative.  He also managed to be given a spanking by Maggie Thatcher, and sleep with two of her party members.  All very confusing, but also all very understandable when you regard the intellect of this man and his deliberate, at times, stance to be provocative.

Hitchens writes of his travels and travails around the world, and the many causes that he has espoused, including the unification of Ireland and the condemnation of military torture.

He became a very public face with his support of the war in Iraq, but as a young man had been against the involvement of the west in the war in Vietnam, but now believed it was America’s duty to depose Saddam Hussein, despite the cost.  He also was one of the few journalists to deny the Weapons of Mass Destruction hysteria.

At B. 530 from the Bookazine shelves, it is top money for a wonderfully obtuse book, which will keep you interested from cover to cover, though you have to do it in small bites, as otherwise the plethora of names in the memoirs begins to read like a Yellow Pages entry under the heading of Intelligentsia.

I did enjoy it, despite that, but it did take much longer to digest than I would have imagined initially.  It is also very British-based (up till 1981 when he emigrates to the USA), going through the better known universities of Oxford and Cambridge (both somewhat of an anachronism these days, I feel) and then the peerage and its representation in the political parties of the day.

All in all, a very interesting and extremely opinionated chap.

Unreliable Sources

There is always some doubt when you read of a police enquiry into the police.  How objective are the results?  So when a book is written by a journalist, looking critically at the work of journalists, how objective would these opinions be?

John Simpson, a journalist for over 40 years has written a new book called Unreliable Sources (ISBN 978-0-330-43563-5, Pan Books, 2010) which has the sub-title, How the 20th century was reported.

The inherent ‘truth’ in this book is evident on the first page of the introduction where author Simpson writes, “People who read the news in a paper or on a website, who listen to a radio or watch television news, usually imagine they are getting something approaching the truth.  Instead, they are merely getting a version of what has happened.”  What a damning concept to make public, and that’s just page 1 of the introduction.

The book proper begins with the Boer War and the young Winston Churchill, who had already set himself apart from the journalist van.  This was a time when “war artists’ were still being used, as the photographic coverage was not yet well developed.  In those days, the reporter was expected to further the national cause.  Even to the point of fawning!

Interestingly, he writes, “For the Daily Mail to question the (Boer) war was a betrayal of the soldiers who were fighting and dying on the frontline.”  (Now fast forward to Iraq and Afghanistan, and make up your own minds as to the veracity of some reports.)

The reporting by the BBC of the start of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland in Londonderry, called “Bloody Sunday”, showed just how stories could be glossed over and the truth hidden.  Unfortunately it reminded me of the red shirt riots in Bangkok, where the truth is still clouded.

The ‘shock, horror’ headlines, so beloved of the Rupert Murdoch tabloid press, were in fact not invented by R. Murdoch and the late News of the World, but by the Daily Express in the early 1900’s with banner headlines on the front page such as “Beaten to Death - Kills seven navies in a few minutes.”  Hmm, makes the Chiang Mai Mail very conservative.

With 560 pages, some photographic plates plus a bibliography and an index, this is indeed a weighty tome.  You will find you can pick up and begin reading about any decade, to find sadly, that falsehoods, being economical with the truth, to downright lies have been the stock in trade of the mainstream press for more than a century.

At B. 430 on the Bookazine shelves, this is a disturbing book.  For those who would blindly believe everything that is published, the realization that there are many pressures that can affect a ‘news’ item before it goes to print, will be a shock.  For those who have worked as journalists, this book is totally factual, no matter how painful it is to accept.  Not only should the public read this book, but every cadet journalist as well.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Fresh-Air Fiend


Unreliable Sources